Over the slow, smooth jazz music that floated throughout the dining room of Tavern 227 the sound of popping hot oil — perhaps simmering sliced garlic — echoed like gunfire from the kitchen. From behind a velvet curtain Chef John Cicinelli appeared, cradling plate after plate of Italian fare, each one seeming to sing a love song with its alluring aromas.
Cicinelli joined the kitchen at Tavern 227, in Sea Cliff, last fall, and since then has added a pinch of passion to each one of his simply crafted dishes in a style of cooking he calls upscale Italian. “There’s more to food than chicken francese and eggplant parmigiana and there’s a lot of beautiful cuisines that you could prepare, but I’m not going to get too fancy where people would feel intimidated either,” he said. “Italian food is not complicated.”
Cicinelli’s family came to America from Sicily in the early 70s and opened a restaurant in the Canarsie area of Brooklyn. He recalls making homemade pasta and mixing pastry dough in his early years, and after doing homework would buss tables and wash dishes during dinner shifts. “I was working in the kitchen at six, seven years old watching my mother cook,” he said.
The 51-year-old chef has spent a lifetime in kitchens on both sides of the Atlantic. After earning a master’s in green engineering his heart led him to Europe, where he continued the culinary education that was instilled in him as a young boy.
For 10 years he toured the entirety of Italy while working in restaurants, picking up the techniques each region had to offer. He spent two years in Milano with Restaurante Marchese — a three star Michelin restaurant — two years in Rome and two years in Napoli, where he learned to make pizza at Antica de Michele. He worked in restaurants in Puglia and stayed even longer in Calabria. “I liked the spiciness of the food,” he said. He then traveled to France to learn its “disciplined” cooking techniques under Michelin star-Chef Paul Bocuse, and afterwards worked in Spain and Germany.
When he returned to America he worked in restaurants all over the five boroughs, but then felt it was time for a change of pace. He saw Sea Cliff as a blank slate — or in this case, a blank plate — waiting for skilled chefs to expand its burgeoning food scene. “It felt like something you’d see on television,” Cicinelli said of the village, “and I think there’s a lot of potential here for restaurants.”
The restaurant celebrates its third year in business this June. Owner Toni Zuccaro, of Glen Cove, said she wanted to give diners a taste of Italian food done the right way, and that philosophy continues with Cicinelli at the helm of the kitchen. Zuccaro said Tavern’s regulars have noticed the new force in the back of the house.
“Everybody said that the food was unbelievable, and it brings back all the memories from Italy,” said Zuccaro, who hails from Naples.
A five-course meal graced the dark wood table — a canvas upon which the colorful ingredients popped. A pair of tender artichokes overflowed with a mixture of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, finished with a sprinkle of toasted breadcrumbs. Homemade beef cheek tortellacci stood like soldiers under a rain of cherry tomato sugo, the completed bite buttery and slightly tart. A heaping portion of homemade fusilli came next, tossed in a delicate cream sauce with speck and chopped pistachios. A thick cutlet of veal scaloppini was brought to life by a barrage of vinegar peppers, and a polenta cake, riddled with texture, played hide and seek under a blanket of tangy Gorgonzola cream sauce.
Perhaps more impressive than his food is his behavior behind the line. “Most chefs get really upset in the kitchen,” Zuccaro said. “He’s very easygoing, and the food that he puts out is incredible.”
Cicinelli attributes this to his deep love of cooking. “Most of the people you find in kitchens today [for them] it’s just a job,” he said. “People like me, we cook with a passion from the heart. The best chefs [are people] no one’s ever heard; they’re working because they like what they do, and this is what I want to do.”
Cicinelli’s advice for picky eaters: “Be open, be adventurous,” he said. “Live to eat; don’t eat to live.”